Hello Reading Friend,
Today, guest blogger Michael Hope has created a great commentary; not just about the new book by Harper Lee, but one on the state of traditional publishing as well. It is a must read for anyone in the industry, and interesting for readers who have put their trust in publishing houses to produce the best of American literature for years. Mike is a lawyer and aspiring novelist from Littleton, Colorado, and a member of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Please note than I have added the bolding and subheads:
Unless you’ve been out of touch for the last few weeks, you’ve probably heard the shock and dismay surrounding Go Set a Watchman. The New York Times broke a critique embargo on the book before it was released, and that let loose a flood of harsh and unusually explicit reviews in newspapers across the world. In two different reviews, the Times expressed its disappointment, the New Yorker called it a failure, and National Public Radio’s Maureen Corrigan called it a mess.
Why such strong reactions? I think the initial reason was that millions of people preordered the book expecting a sequel similar to To Kill a Mockingbird. Readers who loved that book naturally want to catch up with their favorite characters, but Watchman is likely to shock and infuriate them. Without revealing any explicit spoilers, I’ll say that Watchman turns Atticus Finch into a grotesque doppelganger of his former self. In addition, another popular character from Mockingbird has died before Watchman begins. And Scout, the idealistic child from segregated Alabama, becomes a New York liberal who spouts some incredibly bigoted opinions of her own.
Everyone in publishing this looks terrible.
I don’t intend to pass judgement on the merits of the story, but I’m fascinated by what Watchman reveals about modern publishing. It’s a literary train-wreck I can’t stop staring at. Everyone involved in publishing this book looks terrible. HarperCollins has known from the beginning what the public reaction will be, but it did absolutely nothing to warn potential readers that they shouldn’t expect Mockingbird 2.0. A lawyer might call that a fraud of omission.
In any case, nobody will be surprised to hear that a once-respectable large publisher wants to make a ton of money off an inferior novel, not after Random House published Fifty Shades of Grey. HarperCollins has been thrilled with sales of Watchman—more than a million copies already.
Who’s watching out for Ms. Lee?
So you might wonder who has been looking out for Harper Lee’s interests in this latest publishing bonanza? Ms. Lee is represented by the lawyer who controls Ms. Lee’s finances, and that lawyer strongly favors publishing the latest book. That I can’t understand. Ms. Lee’s lawyer had to have realized how dramatically this book would damage her client’s reputation. Ms. Lee is deaf, blind, and, according to many who know her well, mentally impaired. She is 89 and lives in a nursing home. It’s hard to imagine how she’s going to benefit much from this financial windfall.
Her lawyer asserts that Ms. Lee is delighted with the publication of Watchman, but I can’t help but wonder whether she understands the level of controversy surrounding her latest book. Many critics openly doubt that her writing ability could have progressed so quickly from her first novel written, Watchman, to her second, Mockingbird . My own view is that a great editor can work wonders, and she benefitted from years of help from a legendary editor, Tay Hohoff.
The truth is most writers have one, or a dozen, early books that never should see the light of day. Ms. Lee was no different. Watchman is set at a time long after Mockingbird, but Watchman was Lee’s starter novel. She tried to sell it in 1957, but numerous publishers rejected it. Then Ms. Hohoff did her the huge favor of suggesting she take one small bit of backstory from Watchman and expand it into a full book. Lee took that advice, and over two years, she and Ms. Hohoff created the magical Mockingbird. It won the Pulitzer Prize, not bad for a first published novel.
Here’s where the seeds of the current trouble first were sown. Ms. Lee never went back to revise Watchman, not even to remove the many passages she took verbatim from her earlier draft to create Mockingbird. Ms. Lee did try and write a couple of other novels, but she never finished them. I think she realized anything she did later wouldn’t compare well to Mockingbird.
Six decades later, her current lawyer says she stumbled across the original Watchman manuscript, but the New York Times has cast considerable doubt on the lawyer’s story. At any rate, the lawyer convinced Lee to publish it, knowing full well that Ms. Lee couldn’t participate in the normal editing process where it no doubt would’ve undergone dramatic changes like Mockingbird. I can’t help but wonder what’s in this financial bonanza for Ms. Lee’s lawyer?
HarperCollins treated the original Watchman manuscript as holy writ, not making any substantive edits. More importantly, the publisher and lawyer both kept their mouths shut—didn’t even prepare a blurb about the story. Millions lined up to pre-order the book.
And what have readers found? They see Lee’s supposedly enlightened views from 1957 about race relations. Of course, that was long before the Civil Rights era began. The bottom line is that race a tough issue for a new author to tackle, and it needs to be handled with great sensitivity. Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, held views on African-Americans that shock many today. For example, he wanted to send freed slaves back to Africa, and he didn’t believe they deserved equal rights to whites.
Unfortunately, the supposedly enlightened views of Ms. Lee back in the 1950’s are vulgar and paternalistic now. That is exactly why Alice Lee, who was Harper Lee’s protector and lawyer until a few years ago, adamantly opposed publishing Watchman during her lifetime. If Ms. Lee or her current lawyer had been in their right minds, they would’ve followed Alice’s advice.